A Mindful Walk in the Park

Abel Tasman Magazine - A Mindful Walk in the Park photo - Photo © Andre & Lisa Ismael - Lightstyle Photography
“Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua – I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past.”
I have always loved this whakataukī (proverb) that speaks to the dynamic perspectives of time where the past, the present and the future are seen as intertwined and free from boundaries. For generations, people from all over the world have visited the Abel Tasman to switch off, slow down and connect back to nature. Sitting at the heart of all of this is mindfulness and our ability to be fully present in the moment whilst exploring one of the great wonders of this incredible place we get to call home.

My History, Your History, Our History

For me, a mindful walk in the Abel Tasman is about being conscious of my own relationship with the area and the history that takes a bit of time and effort to seek out, but it offers much richness and understanding of our story as a nation. It’s about diving deeper than the glossy photos and brochures that now tell the stories of the Abel Tasman to the world.

This magazine is a part of that effort to go deeper and tell more of the plethora of stories that connect people to this place that we now call the Abel Tasman National Park. From here on out, I may refer to this place as“the park” or “down the bay” as you’ll hear most locals doing.

I read recently that “nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days” and that resonated with me as I reflect on being a child growing up in and around the park. There is no doubt that a lot has changed since I was a child in Motueka and I am very likely guilty of applying rose tinted glasses to my childhood interactions with the park. However, the practice of looking back on those days and hearing old stories still triggers a strong sense of nostalgia as I recall the sights, sounds and smells that shaped my childhood experience of the park and the wider region.

For me, a mindful walk in the Abel Tasman is about being conscious of my own relationship with the area and the history that takes a bit of time and effort to seek out, but it offers much richness and understanding of our story as a nation. It’s about diving deeper than the glossy photos and brochures that now tell the stories of the Abel Tasman to the world.."

My family’s history in this area is relatively short and our ties are much stronger in the far north and deep south. As it happens, my parents chose to ‘meet in the middle’ and settle in Motueka where I had the privilege of growing up. My father worked in the visitor sector for decades and it’s been with great pleasure that I’ve been able to reconnect with the sector in my own line of work over the past 5 years.

As a kid, I used to wait on the shores of Kaiteriteri beach for my old man as he brought the Wilsons dinghy ashore. The first order of business was often to throw me some change and ask me to fetch a pouch of Port Royal from the Kaiteriteri Store for the day ahead. “It’s for Grant” was about the extent of the identification required back then, how quickly things have changed.

A soggy lukewarm steak and cheese pie each was the designated breakfast of champions for us hardy locals. A layer of fat used to stick to the roof of your mouth for the duration of your journey up the park. Pure bliss.

We’re living through a fascinating period of the park’s history with the regeneration and restoration of the Abel Tasman in full flight fuelled by substantial philanthropic commitments, thousands of volunteer hours from locals, a collaborative mindset from local operators and leadership from conservation groups, mana whenua and DOC. Anyone who knows the park well can really notice the difference and yet this chapter in the park’s story is still in its infancy and has largely focused on control and eradication to make way for the thousands of species and plants that belong in the area.

Our human history in the Abel Tasman goes back several hundred years. Māori lived here and gathered kai along the coast and in the ngahere (bush). Māori history in this area is largely shaped by a series of epic migrations from the north and for the mana whenua of this area, the park is a very special and significant taonga.

One of the stranger aspects of the park is the name itself – Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman never actually set foot in what we now consider the national park. The closest he came was anchoring at Wharewharangi Bay near Wainui Inlet at the north end of the park back in 1642, which was followed by a violent encounter with Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri after which he set sail again and never returned. This was the first encounter between Europeans and tangata whenua. The area was also missed by Captain Cook’s expeditions and wasn’t encountered by Europeans again until Dumont d’Urville in 1827.

By the 1850’s, land was being sold to European settlers and farming was taking over. The impacts of this era are still evident today, although the park is changing constantly. In more recent history, the recreational and tourism potential of the park has taken precedence. It was the rumour of a proposal to establish a sawmill at Tōtaranui in 1937 that prompted environmental campaigner and Nelson resident, Perrine Moncrieff, to start pushing for the area to be designated a National Park. Ultimately, she was successful and the Abel Tasman is now New Zealand’s smallest but most popular national park.

Another O’Donnell family outing in the park circa 2001

It Doesn’t Matter How You Go.

I’ve kayaked, walked, flown, boated and even skydived in the Abel Tasman in my lifetime – all of which are truly epic ways to experience this slice of paradise. It’s fair to say the transport mode preferred by my father ‘Captain Grant’ has always been by water and he’s not much of a swimmer, so I’ll let you do the math on that one. He used to quip that he was a good skipper because he can’t stand swimming!

My weekends and school holidays involved a lot of boat trips up and down the bay. Looking back, it was probably quite a formative time for me as a child meeting people from all different corners of the world and walks of life, learning to hold a conversation with them and manaaki them as a ‘relative’ local to the area.

I remember the days going so slowly – journeying up and down the coastline, dropping people off looking uncertain and apprehensive and picking them up looking several years younger and so much more relaxed. That’s the true Abel Tasman experience. At lunchtime, we used to park the boat up for a couple of hours in Tōtaranui and devour a thermos of tea and a packet of biscuits. Interestingly, dad used to always have a pair of binoculars to keep an eye on the visitors. One can only assume this was a safety monitoring device rather than something more sinister.

The people of the park are such a special part of the experience – we’d drop care packages up and down the coast to people working or staying in the park. The boats you see in the park are not just passenger ferries – they’re also the unofficial wardens of the park (making the Abel Tasman a truly safe destination for adventure) and the local mail service delivering parcels of food and essentials (many of which come in glass bottles from memory) up and down the bay.

Medlands Beach - Experience an Abel Tasman Day Trip
Medlands Beach near Bark Bay

The Best of our Bush and Beach

The Abel Tasman has been made famous for its unique combination of bush and beach. The crystal clear waters and golden sands can be likened to something of a tropical island. But the park also has a fascinating history and is home to generations of stories that capture the experience of living in this region. Te Tauihu (Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough) is thought to be the most ancient and diverse landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand which makes the protection and restoration of biodiversity in the area so much more important and your experience here so much more special.

COVID-19 has changed the dynamics of the park and offered, perhaps, a more restful period from international visitation. A chance to reconsider and reset our relationship with tourism going forward. The visitor sector based in and around the Abel Tasman supports hundreds of jobs and injects millions into the local economy. Every paid journey into the Abel Tasman supports the management and conservation needs of the park through a concession system (which also manages the flow and numbers of people entering the national park) and a voluntary contribution by operators to the Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust.

You have to see and experience it to truly understand it. On a clear day, a walk in the Abel Tasman can be almost blinding. The glistening sights of the golden beaches, the smell of the seabreeze and the sounds of the birdsong provide a sensory feast that truly never fails to amaze and delight.

Aren’t we lucky?

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